Commentary: Why a long overdue admission of Nazi shame matters

Seventy years after the Nuremberg trials, something truly extraordinary happened in a German courtroom last week. Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard who will go down in history as one of the last of Hitler’s perpetrators to be charged for his role in the Third Reich, offered an apology.

Hanning declared he was “sincerely sorry” and “ashamed” that he had belonged to a criminal organization that committed mass murder and countless atrocities, and that he had never done anything to prevent such actions.

In today's world, that hardly sounds like a startling admission. But it is almost unprecedented for those who have been charged with carrying out the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes since the end of World War Two. To say this is a case of too little too late is a vast understatement. Nonetheless, this does not diminish the significance of Hanning’s remarks.

They matter particularly because there are only a dwindling number of Nazi war criminals still alive. For the Nazi hunters -- the government investigators and prosecutors along with the freelance operatives who have tracked and exposed the perpetrators -- this magnifies the role of these remaining court cases. They offer a last chance for confronting not just the legal but the moral issues that the perpetrators have so consistently tried to dodge in the past. And for providing the also rapidly dwindling number of Holocaust survivors the chance to face their tormenters.

Right from the beginning, most Nazi war criminals never apologized for anything. At age 27, Benjamin Ferencz was the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trial of the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, the special squads that conducted mass killings of Jews, Gypsies and other civilian “enemies” on the Eastern Front before the killings shifted to the gas chambers in the camps. Ferencz still vividly recalls the protestations of Otto Ohlendorf, one of those condemned to death, that he was only doing his duty. After his sentencing, Ohlendorf told him: “The Jews in America will suffer for this.” Ferencz told me during an interview for my book The Nazi Hunters.

Even one of the most notorious architects of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, organizer of the mass deportation of Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, portrayed himself as a mere functionary who had no animosity towards his victims. He told the Israeli police investigator who questioned him after the Mossad abducted him from Argentina in 1960: “I had nothing to do with killing Jews. I’ve never killed a Jew. And I’ve never ordered anyone to kill a Jew.” That gave him “a certain peace of mind,” he added, although he was under no illusions about his ultimate fate. He was the only top Nazi to be tried and hanged by the Israelis.

For Germany’s most famous Nazi hunter, the behavior of those relatively few mass murderers who were ever held to account for their crimes was exasperating for another reason. Fritz Bauer,  a German prosecutor from a secular Jewish family who had spent most of the Nazi era in exile, returned after the war determined to make his countrymen face up to the horrors committed in their name. To that end, he orchestrated the Frankfurt trial of 22 former Auschwitz personnel in the 1960s -- not the big bosses, but the people who had tortured and killed prisoners on a daily basis.

During a trial that featured a procession of survivors who testified in agonizing detail about their ordeals, Bauer vented his frustration. In an interview, he pointed out that the prosecution had been waiting “for one of the defendants…to address the witnesses who had survived and had their whole families annihilated with one humane word…it would have cleared the air.” That never happened.

Ferencz, now 96, pointed out that right after the war, this refusal to admit guilt or show any compassion to the victims was widespread.  “I never had a German come up to me and say I’m sorry all the time I was in Germany,” he told me. “That was my biggest disappointment; nobody, including my mass murderers, ever said I’m sorry. That was the mentality.”

Germany has come a very long way since then. The Holocaust and other wartime atrocities are routinely taught in schools; as a whole, the country now has a commendable record of facing the darkest chapter in its history and seeking to atone for it. That is in large part the product of the efforts of Nazi hunters like Ferencz, Bauer and others who pushed for such trials, not allowing the past to be buried along with its victims. But those who were most directly involved in the machinery of death were largely immune to any appeals to conscience.

Jesus famously said when he was crucified: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Nazi criminals knew all too well what they were doing. It is only now that at least one of them is admitting as much.

A former Newsweek foreign correspondent and editor, Andrew Nagorski is the author of The Nazi Hunters, which will be released on May 10.The opinions expressed are his own. He tweets @AndrewNagorski